10/19/2010 10:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Election Surprises

Conventional wisdom is predicting a Republican sweep of the elections. It has been for some time, and has been reinforced by the media over the last few days with a steady drumbeat of stories about how the Democrats are being swamped with too much money to come back. Some Democrats are arguing there is reason for optimism, based on a variety of different factors. What to believe? People not steeped in political history might wonder how often the conventional wisdom gets upset in actual election results. Since I am an old guy and have been doing this election stuff for a while, I thought it would be worth sharing some stories of past campaigns, because surprises happen more often than a lot of people realize:

  • In 1980, the polling going into the final weekend of the election showed the race to be a statistical dead heat. That weekend, I was going out knocking on doors for Democrats, and when we got back from our rounds at night, none of us were feeling very optimistic because people seemed in such a negative mood toward Democrats in general. The election broke all toward Reagan and Republicans in general the last 5 days of the campaign. Carter lost by 7, and took a lot of progressive Democrats down with him.

  • In the fall of 1986, Reagan was pretty popular, the economy was going along alright, and Congressional approval was relatively good. But as the election came down its stretch run, Democrats in key Senate races were able to capitalize on the restlessness of working class voters whose wages hadn't gone up much in the previous several years, and on the right wing extremism of several of the Senators elected in the 1980 landslide. Democrats surprised the pundits by retaking control of the Senate that year.
  • In 1994, most pollsters were predicting Democrats would lose 25-30 seats in the House. In the last ten days of the race, we started getting panicked reports at the White House about discouraging numbers being produced in absentee voting and early voting as our base just lost interest in the race, and we ended up losing 52 seats.
  • In 1996, Stan Greenberg and I had lunch in mid-October, and our read of the numbers was that we were very likely to retake control of Congress. Four days later the campaign finance scandal broke, and while it didn't have a big impact on the presidential race, it had enough of one that our momentum in Congressional races was halted and we only picked up half of the House seats we needed to retake control of the House.
  • In 1998, pundits were widely predicting big Democratic losses- 25, 30 or more seats in the House. A small group of us (Greenberg included) became convinced the tide could be turned by telling voters it was time to move on from the Lewinsky scandal and focus on the real issues that mattered to America. That message, strongly resisted at first by the DCCC and DSCC, ended up working in key races all over the country, and we ended up picking up 5 House seats.
  • In mid-October 2006, picking up the 15 seats we needed to win the House was considered a very close call, and winning the 6 extra seats needed to pick up a Senate majority was considered a very long shot. But Republican scandals kept dropping, and the tide built for the Democrats, and we won 31 House seats and the 6 close Senate seats we needed to win.
  • With two weeks yet to go, and poll numbers bouncing around like a pinball on steroids, don't bet the money on any result in these elections. I have just seen a round of polling in a bunch of the competitive House races, and most of them are either within the margin of error of the poll, or very near it. Any last minute news story, breaking issue, dumb quote by a national political figure, or last second move in the national polls either way could shake things up just enough to cause a different result. I would also recommend keeping an eye out for some big surprises in particular races. My favorite example because of my years in Iowa politics: in 1998, Tom Vilsack was 20 points down two weeks out. Then the national mood started to shift, Vilsack had a great last ad, and an upset was had. Here's a couple of sleepers that might just develop if things break right:

    1. Alaska Senate. I have written before that this race reminds a lot of when Carol Moseley-Braun won her Senate race, or when Gray Davis first became governor of California. In both cases they were running way back in 3rd place, had far less money and no attention compared to the other 2 candidates, and pulled out shocking wins because the top two beat the hell out of each other. It's very hard to tell, but it could happen in Alaska: same dynamic with Miller and Murkowski beating away on each other; Miller is making a stupid mistake just about every day; Murkowski has to deal with a complicated system for writing in votes; and the Democrat McAdams has picked up 7.5 points in the last couple of weeks. Keep an eye on this one.

    2. Ohio Senate. Everyone wrote Lee Fisher off months ago in this race, and just today a public poll showed him 22 points down. But I have seen two other polls in the last 4 days that show the race in single digits, and I have also seen polling numbers that show 30% of Portman's voters have the potential to go bye-bye if they know about his role as Bush's trade rep shipping jobs overseas.

    These kinds of upsets do happen all the time, especially if the national political environment starts to shift even a little bit in the last couple of weeks.

    Democrats have some powerful issues to motivate voters as this race draws to a close: trade and outsourcing; Social Security; foreclosure fraud; secret corporate (including foreign corporate) funding of elections. This election may only be two weeks away, but it is far from over.